With Missouri closing in, Tennessee showed poise down the stretch to hold off the pesky Tigers 56-50 on Sunday.
“No, I don’t think we were nervous,” said Carter, who finished with eight points. “We actually just kept telling each other to stay composed. Just play our game, slow down, relax. We were going to be fine.”
The 10th-ranked Lady Vols led by 16 with 11 minutes left before Missouri closed to 50-47 on Bri Kulas’ layup with 1:22 left. It would have been easy for Tennessee to wilt, but the Lady Vols sustained the run and held on for the win hitting their free throws down the stretch.
Meighan Simmons scored 20 points, her fourth 20-plus performance in the past five games, and Mercedes Russell tied a career high with 11 rebounds to lead Tennessee (22-5, 11-3 SEC), which had lost at Missouri last season.
“There was definitely an extra edge,” Simmons said. “We knew we didn’t want to lose. We knew this was going to be a big game for us. We just decided to come out and just play hard.”
Kulas finished with 22 points and Morgan Eye added 15 for the Tigers (16-11, 5-9), who only trailed by one point at halftime despite shooting 2 of 15 from 3-point range before the break.
Missouri, which ranks third in the country and first in the SEC with 9.5 3-pointers per game, missed its first nine 3s before Kayla McDowell’s long-range attempt connected 9 1/2 minutes into the game.
Only four players scored for the Tigers, who finished 7 of 32 from 3-point range.
“Our shots just weren’t falling tonight,” Kulas said. “But we’re still going to continue to shoot those shots because we have confidence in ourselves and we know we can knock down those shots.”
The schools met for the first time since Missouri upset then-No. 9 Tennessee 80-63 on Feb. 3, 2013. Officials announced attendance at 5,017, the highest this season for Missouri.
Eye gave the Tigers their first lead of the game with 3:30 remaining before the break, hitting her first 3-pointer in six attempts to give Missouri a 22-21 advantage. She finished short of her 18.4-point average, good for second in the SEC.
Missouri’s lead lasted only 22 seconds, though, as Russell converted a layup and Andraya Carter added another to give Tennessee a 23-22 halftime edge. The Lady Vols then started the second half on a 18-5 run before Eye ended the run with a 3-pointer with 11:19 left.
“We knew it was huge,” Carter said. “We knew that just coming out in the second half, if we let them get going, it was going to be a long night. It was already a long night in itself.”
Tennessee committed 10 turnovers in the first half and six more in the second after placing special emphasis on holding onto the ball in practice following a 22-turnover performance against then- No. 18 Kentucky two games ago. That game resulted in a 75-71 loss, Tennessee’s only setback in its last nine games.
The Lady Vols outrebounded Missouri 48-35 and limited the Tigers to six free throws despite playing a pressure defense.
“We talked about that before the game, really having an attack mentality,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “But you’re not going to get a lot of free throws when you shoot as many 3’s as we did tonight.”
Simmons scored the Lady Vols’ first eight points of the game in 2:39, but tallied two more points in the half off a layup 12 minutes later. She finished 6 of 16 from the field while Bashaara Graves joined her in double figures with 11 points.
“She’s drawing a lot of attention and she’s learning to pass the ball a lot better now as well,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “I think Meighan is playing a complete game and it’s fun to watch. It’s fun to watch.”